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The vulnerable spot

Devdutt PattanaikAt a recent literature festival, I spoke to Madeline Miller, the author of the book Song of Achilles that tells the love story of Patroclus and Achilles through the words of Patroclus. This is a gay love story, told unselfconsciously, with a Bollywood-style happy ending in the afterlife when the lovers are reunited after they are killed in the infamous Trojan war. But what caught my attention is the way Achilles dies: not with the arrow struck in the famous ‘Achilles heel’, a departure from popular versions of the story, but in keeping with the original Homeric myths.

The story goes that his mother, a sea goddess called Thetis, wanted to ensure that every part of his body was impervious to weapons. So, when he was an infant, she caught him by his heel and dipped him in the river Styx, the river that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead. But the area that she held, the heel itself, was not touched by those waters. And that remained vulnerable. That is where Achilles was struck by the arrow.


Illustration/Devdutt Pattanaik

If the story sounds familiar it is because the same tale is found in the folk versions of the Mahabharata. Gandhari tells Duryodhan to stand naked before her. Her eyes, shut by a blindfold for decades, have magical powers. The first thing she will see will become impervious to weapons. But a shy Duryodhan covers his genitals with a leaf when he stands before his mother. And that is where he is struck by Bhima’s mace, resulting in death. The folk versions are not shy about referring to the genitals, referred metaphorically in the classical version as the ‘thigh’.

Rukmini learns that if she anoints Krishna’s body with butter while he is standing in the pose (with right leg crossed over left) he took while playing the flute to Radha, she will render his body invulnerable. Krishna refuses to take the pose, because Radha and memories of his childhood are behind him now. But Rukmini begs and Krishna relents. Rukmini covers Krishna’s entire body with butter, but forgets the sole of the left foot on which he stands. This left sole is where the arrow of a hunter, who mistakes his foot for the snout of a deer, strikes Krishna fatally.

Norse mythology tells the story of Sigurd who bathes in dragon blood, which renders his body invulnerable to weapons, but misses the spot on his shoulder where a leaf was stuck. This is where he is finally struck and killed.

Stories from Greece, India and Nordic lands refer to the same theme: of the body becoming invulnerable to weapons except in one spot. We often wonder whether stories travel from one land to another. How else would the same theme appear in different lands? But sometimes it is just an expression of human psychology. Humans everywhere are the same: we all desire invulnerability but know that no matter how hard we try, nature will ensure there is a vulnerable Achilles heel.

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at devdutt@devdutt.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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